More than 100 U.S. soldiers and Marines arrived in the Kurdish capital of Irbil on Tuesday to coordinate humanitarian relief and advise local forces on beating back the threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said.
At a town hall meeting with Marines at Camp Pendleton, California, Hagel said that 130 troops from a U.S. Central Command inter-service team were now in Irbil. He stressed that "this is not a combat boots on the ground mission."
The troops would help the Kurdish "peshmerga" forces in rescuing Yazidi sect members trapped in the Sinjar mountains and advise on the ISIL threat, Hagel said. However, he emphasized that "we're not going back into Iraq in any of the same combat dimension."
A background statement from the Defense Department said that President Obama had authorized sending the troops "temporarily" with the primary mission of assessing the scope of the disaster facing the Yazidis and developing "options beyond the beyond the current airdrop effort" to aid the refugees.
The United Nations and relief agencies have been pleading for the establishment of a "humanitarian corridor" to bring the thousands of Yazidis safely out of the mountains, where they are under the threat of death from ISIL. About 35,000 have managed to escape, according to the UN, but about 15,000-20,000 remain trapped.
Australia, Britain and France have pledged to help with the relief of the Yazidis, Hagel said.
Several published reports have also said that the U.S. is now directly arming the Kurdish forces rather than going through the central government in Baghdad.
Speaking to the Pendleton Marines, who sat cross-legged on the floor in an airplane hangar, Hagel said the U.S. would do more in Iraq while avoiding a ground combat role.
The "centerpiece" to the entire U.S. effort marked by airstrikes and airdrops was the formation of a unity government in Baghdad to counter ISIL, Hagel said.
The brutality of the ISIL fighters and their demonstrated ability to organize and move swiftly made them "a force in a dimension the world has never seen before," Hagel said.
However, the responsibility for combating ISIL rested with the Iraqis, Hagel said.
"The president has said we're not going to do that. The combat mission is over," he said.
Hagel's remarks and the Defense Department background statement did not address definitively how many U.S. troops are now in Iraq.
In June, President Obama authorized up to 300 Special Forces advisers to be sent to Iraq, mainly to assess the ISIL threat. Those troops have now set up Joint Operations Centers in Baghdad and Irbil.
Other troops have been sent to Iraq to protect U.S. facilities at the Baghdad airport and bolster security at the U.S. Embassy. In addition, another 100 U.S. troops have been posted to Iraq as part of the Office of Security Cooperation overseeing weapons sales.
As required by the War Powers Act, Obama has sent letters to Congress to allow sending up to 775 U.S. troops to Iraq.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@monster.com.